I met Gretchen Peters at the 2011 30A Songwriters Festival, where she signed a copy of her best-of CD Circus Girl for me. I cherish that disc even more now after hearing Peters’ latest album, Hello Cruel World, a record loaded with emotion and, of course, great songs. She’ll be appearing at Seaside’s Meeting Hall Theatre, Tuesday, May 8. I spoke to Peters from the road, “somewhere between St. Louis and Nashville.”
Congratulations on the success of Hello Cruel World. The overwhelmingly positive critical and audience reception is very well deserved.
Thank you so much. It’s been an incredible few months. I’m still sort of absorbing it.
You called me out on my review of the album. My fuzzy memory misidentified your “Five Minutes” as a song recorded by Lorrie Morgan back in the ‘90s. Sorry about that.
That’s quite all right. I think that one was written by a friend of ours, Beth Nielsen Chapman, but no worries.
The Hello Cruel World tour has taken you all over the world.
I’ve been touring in the UK for 16 years, so that’s a longstanding thing with me. The European tour we just finished was by far the biggest, longest and most successful. We’re expanding into different countries like Germany and talking about going to Japan and Australia.
How did the Seaside gig come about?
I’ve had a place in Seaside for 18 years. That’s where I go to do most of my writing. Eight or nine of the songs on Hello Cruel World were written at Seaside. It’s a place where I have a lot of creative juice. I have one of the original oldest Seaside houses, a 900 square foot house that I find to be an incredibly creative place for me. When I was at the (2011) 30A Songwriters Festival, I played at the theater and got to know Mark Schnell and mentioned how much I loved playing there.
You performed “Idlewild,” one of the standout songs from the new album, at the 2011 festival.
It’s really memories of my childhood. My dad was a journalist, and he was writing about the civil rights movement. It’s sort of a mixture of memories about his involvement in that and what was going on internally with my family at the same time. I guess I drew a parallel about the disillusion of the orderly world in the ‘60s and my own family on a micro level. Truthfully, a lot of that song came to me in a dream. I wanted to write a song that didn’t rhyme, like Paul Simon’s “America.” I’m a compulsive writer, and I had this idea in the back of my head. A lot of the lines and the format came to me in a dream, and I think that’s the only way I could have written that.
Did you meet any new friends or collaborators at the 30A festival, or was it the same cats you’ve known for years? I know you and Rodney Crowell go way back.
A lot of it was seeing old friends. We’re usually on the road most of the time, so we don’t see each other that much. 30A is an amazing festival to meet up with old friends. I did a round with Mary Gauthier and Emily Saliers, and I love her. Jennifer Knapp I’d never met, and it turned out we lived close to each other.
Will you be performing with your band at the Seaside concert?
It’ll be Barry Walsh and me. We had a third band member for the European tour, but she won’t be with us for this date—Christine Bougie (lap steel, electric guitar, percussion). She’s a brilliant musician.
Will you have an opening act? We have quite the music scene here, lots of talented artists and bands.
I’ve been coming here for 20 years now. I’ve done the Red Bar scene a lot. Barry and I talked about coming Sunday and him weaseling his way into playing piano there. It’s a really great gig. I’m thinking the first half we’ll play Hello Cruel World in its entirety, and a variety of stuff for the second part. The album has a flow that makes it work in a live set in the same order.
I first became aware of you as a songwriter—“Chill of an Early Fall” recorded by George Strait, several by Patty Loveless—but you’ve been performing since you were a kid. You didn’t intend to be a songwriter for hire.
I didn’t know that would be an option. If I had known, I don’t think it would have interested me. The people I admired—Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Leonard Cohen—they were singer-songwriters. Rodney Crowell. Gram Parsons. I didn’t know there was this world where you could just write songs and stay home. Making an album is its own wonderful adventure, and then playing songs for people live—it keeps evolving and growing. Part of that is because you’re living with the songs and people are responding to them. The arrangements change. You find new things in the lyrics. I love that process.
Your first solo album, The Secret of Life, was released in 1996. How did the transition from songwriter to performer come about?
It was an exciting time and fraught with difficulties. My record company thought it would be a country hit and put half a million dollars behind it as a mainstream country record. It opened up a lot of doors—a lot of those songs were recorded by other artists. It did do well in England, which prompted my first tour there. That led to us playing Isle of Wight and other festivals there. I have that album to thank for that. In the U.S., it took me a while to find my feet.
What performer or recording inspired you to first pick up a guitar?
Bob Dylan. I picked up the guitar when I was seven. I had an older sister who brought home every Bob Dylan record. My memories of my childhood are of that house, playing cards with my sister, and
Bob Dylan was always in the background. I learned the DNA of songs in those hours listening to the early Dylan records. He made it seem possible to a seven-year-old to play a guitar. The Beatles were around, but I couldn’t conceive of playing like that. Bob Dylan was tangible.
What are some of your favorite recordings of your songs by other artists?
The ones I would pick wouldn’t be the most obvious. I’m very proud that I had a song recorded by Etta James (“Love’s Been Rough on Me”). I also love Jimmy Lafave’s recording of “On a Bus to St. Cloud” and “Revival.” I’d add to the list of the ones I love Patty Loveless’ version of “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am.” It’s the perfect marriage of song and artist.
You’re very active on social media— Facebook, Twitter, etc. How big a part does that play in promoting your music?
It’s been huge for me. It comes naturally to me, because I love the interaction that happens there. My first experience in the music business was in that era where the old school attitude prevailed—you should be at arm’s length, you shouldn’t be accessible. That always made me feel nervous and inhibited—self-conscious in a way that didn’t feel good. The social media interaction, I find it really comfortable. I don’t reveal everything, but if someone wants to know about an album or a song, I interact.
Thanks to you, I found out Merle Haggard is on Twitter now.
That was so awesome, because he’s really doing it himself. I think the beauty of Twitter is, I try to just use it for what it was intended for—observations. Rosanne Cash is a brilliant tweeter.
“Independence Day” (recorded by Martina McBride), perhaps your bestknown composition, received a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year in 1995 and picked up a prize at the Country Music Awards. Among the many honors you’ve received as a songwriter and performer, which one means the most to you?
I don’t want to appear ungrateful. The CMA meant so much to me. It was huge. But the thing that really moves me the most is being asked to collaborate in whatever form—singing on a record, writing a song together—by my fellow artists. Talk about recognition by your peers! That, to me, is the ultimate validation, when an artist you love wants to work with you.
You mentioned Carole King as an inf luence. Have you read her autobiography, A Natural Woman?
We downloaded the audiobook from iTunes so we’d have something to listen to when we were driving. When I called you, we were right at the point where she’s about to make Tapestry. She reads it, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Like every other person who was around when that album came out, it was pivotal. I was in junior high at the time. I dressed like her. I wore the record out. I was obsessed with her.
Your bio on allmusic.com describes you as “introspective” and “intelligent.” What adjectives did they leave out?
I guess “optimistic.” There’s this implication with “introspective” that I’m serious all the time and pessimistic. People that haven’t seen me live might have that idea, but I’m very optimistic and positive.
Update (4.27.12): If you're not familiar with Peters' work (shame on you), a FREE 15-song sampler is available to download at http://noisetrade.com/gretchenpeters.